5th - 21st October 2018

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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Five minutes with...The Bookshop Band

A picture of the musical trio the bookshop band reading a book

  • A picture of the musical trio the bookshop band reading a book

In advance of their upcoming gig at our Patrick Ness event on 6 October, we talk to Ben Please of The Bookshop Band, a Bristol-based musical trio who write and perform songs inspired by particular books.

How did the idea for The Bookshop Band come about?

In September 2010, Nic Bottomly, the proprietor of our local bookshop, Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights, in Bath, asked me if I would get together a group of musicians to play at the shop’s author nights. Rather than just do a normal author evening, where they turn up, do a reading from their latest book, and answer a few questions from the audience, Nic wanted to make the author evenings more involved. The night would be themed, the author and their book would be part of that, but there would also be talks on other books related to the theme, as well as related food, drink… and music. Each night in the first season was based on a different country, and originally Nic asked if ‘the band’ would play a cover-song related to that country. I was terrible at playing covers, and had an idea of two musicians and songwriters who I really wanted to work with, so I suggested we could write the songs instead. Nic said that sounded a great idea and I left the shop really hoping the people I had in mind would say yes!

They were Beth Porter and Poppy Pitt. I had met Beth at various festivals throughout the year, playing both with various bands and also with her own band and with her own songs. She had a wonderful voice, lovely original quirky songs, and musically she would respond instantly with the most sublime and understated musicianship, either singing or on her cello. Poppy I met in the pub, but after a pub lock-in session I discovered she had the ability to write fantastic lyrics for a 4 minute song in around 4 minutes. With these two on board, it would work, I thought. And they said yes. Phew!

Can you tell us a bit about your songwriting method? And how do you choose which books to write about?

We did the first season of events at Mr Bs writing songs about folk tales from the relevant country for each themed night, all really enjoying the process of writing songs, quickly, to a deadline, but strangely without any stress. With really tight turnarounds, all procrastination and second guessing goes. You just enjoy the songwriting process, and you enjoy the final song. I think we all found the process quite liberating and surprising. After 3 months we had written, recorded and got into the shop our first album, ‘Travels From Your Armchair’, with ten songs inspired by folk tales from 5 different countries.

When Nic asked if we would like to do it again for Season Two, we said yes, but it quickly transpired that Poppy had already read the book (or rather heard it on the radio!) of the author that was coming in, so we decided to write the songs inspired by the book itself. That was The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. It was great to respond to a book, finding the parts that resonated with us and using that to inspire our songs. When we played it on the night, in front of the author, and had such an overwhelming response from both the audience and the author (and the bookshop!), we thought that this would be the most rewarding way to continue, even if it did mean that our spare time would now be taken up desperately trying to finish a book in time to give us at least a few hours before the next event to write the songs. All the songs we have written since have been inspired by books.

There's a long association between literature and popular music. Which book-related popular songs do you especially like?

Yes, there are lots of songwriters, who have credited in some way a book to a song. The Crane Wife album by The Decemberists is a must. Obviously it’s a body of work as opposed to a particular song, and a folk story as opposed to a book, but definitely worth a listen.

Radiohead credit books as part of the inspiration for many of their songs; 2 + 2 = 5 (Hail To The Thief), is a reference to George Orwell's '1984', where Big Brother was trying to teach people to reject what they thought was true. And then singer Thom Yorke also mentioned Ben Okri's 1991 novel The Famished Road as an inspiration for the truly wonderful track (and what got me into Radiohead in the first place), 'Street Spirit (Fade Out)'. Then, of course, you have 'Man Of Constant Sorrow' — recorded recently by the Soggy Bottom Boys (from the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) — which refers to a line in Homer’s Odyssey.

Why did you choose to write songs about Patrick Ness' works in particular?

We've written songs for two of Patrick's books, A Monster Calls, and The Crane Wife. Patrick came for an author event at Mr Bs for both books, so we of course were there, and wrote two songs inspired by each. 'For An Ending' and 'Sit Down', both inspired by A Monster Calls, and 'Make A Story', and 'A Feather From Your Side', inspired by The Crane Wife. It was particularly fun with the Crane Wife, as Patrick dedicates the book, at the start, to The Decemberists, a fantastic American band, who wrote a brilliant album inspired by the old Crane Wife Japanese folk tale. A story inspired a song inspires a book inspires a song.

Finally, read any good books lately?

All our reading time at the moment has been dedicated to The Bookshop Band, which we're not complaining about. We're all (re)reading Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie at the moment, writing a song for The Verb on BBC Radio 3.

See The Bookshop Band with author Patrick Ness at Manchester Town Hall on 8 October at 7:30pm.